The Ballon d’Or is the most prestigious individual accolade in the game of football and a roll call of past winners reads like a list of footballing royalty, with some of the greatest of all time including Ronaldo de Lima, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Cristiano Ronaldo but to name a few having all lifted the iconic prize.
Every year since 1956, the Ballon d’Or has been given to the player adjudged to have outperformed every other player and it is handed out by French football media outfit France Football.
The idea behind the award was conceived by sports writer Gabriel Hanot and for the first 50 years, the winner was decided strictly by the votes of journalists. However, from 2007 onwards, national team coaches and captains have also been awarded voting slots.
In 2010, football’s governing body FIFA wrested the rights of the Ballon d’Or from France Football and merged it with the now-defunct FIFA Best Player of the Year to become the FIFA Ballon d’Or and this was the status quo until it was reverted to its previous format in 2016.
Throughout its 64-year history, the Ballon d’Or has undergone numerous changes to its eligibility format and earlier restrictions excluded numerous players from having a shot at winning the accolade.
From 1956 to 1994, the award was only open to players of European origin, but in 1995, it was expanded to embrace football’s status as a melting pot and became open to all players from any nationality provided that they played football in a European club.
Former Liberian international George Weah became the first non-European to win the award in 1995.
In 2007, the award was further expanded to be contested by any player from any part of the world playing in any league, but it is pertinent to note that all winners have come from clubs playing football on the European continent.
While some of the greatest in history might have claimed the prize, numerous others failed to grace the honor roll of Ballon d’Or winners, as they were affected by eligibility criterion, ill-luck or questionable voting patterns.
In this piece, we shall be having a rundown of the top 10 greatest players who never won the Ballon d’Or.
Honorable mentions: Giacinto Facchetti, David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, Thierry Henry, Xavi Hernadez, Andres Iniesta
#10 Oliver Kahn
Oliver Kahn is widely regarded by many as the greatest goalkeeper in history and few can deny him this accolade, as he was nothing short of exceptional throughout his 21-year career.
He spent his formative years with the academy of Karlsruher SC with whom he spent 12 years between 1975 and 1987 and was promoted to the B-team where he spent three years until his debut with the senior side in 1990.
After impressing with his hometown club, Oliver Kahn was signed by Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich in the summer of 1994 for a record fee.
With the Bavarians, the Karlsruhe native went on to achieve global popularity and cemented his reputation as arguably the best goalkeeper of his generation.
Germany has a rich culture of producing world-class goalkeepers that continues to this day and for over a decade, Oliver Kahn was the undisputed number one for his country, making 86 appearances for Die Mannschaft.
His greatest moment came at the 2002 World Cup where he was the star of the show, putting in several impressive performances to help Germany qualify to the final in Japan.
Though his display on the day was beneath his usual standards, Oliver Kahn’s overall performance in the Mundial was good enough to see him named the Golden Ball winner as the best player of the tournament.
For his efforts, he finished third in the voting for the Ballon d’Or in 2002, as well as runner-up to Ronaldo as the FIFA Best Player in the World.
#9 Roberto Carlos
Players like Giacinto Facchetti and Djalma Santos were early proponents of the attacking full-back role, but Roberto Carlos reinvented what it meant to be a full-back.
The former Brazilian international loved to attack more than defend and throughout his career, a key component of both Real Madrid and Brazil’s attacking arsenal was Roberto Carlos bombarding down the left flank.
He was exquisite in his crossing, while he also posed a decent threat from set-pieces and score one of the most memorable freekicks of all time when he scored a goal from 35 yards that seemingly defied physics to whiz past Fabian Barthez into the back of the net.
He was also the provider of the assist for arguably the greatest goal in Champions League history, crossing for Zinedine Zidane to score his worldie in the 2002 Champions League final.
The former Inter Milan man played an integral role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup triumph and was named the runner-up in the 2002 Ballon d’Or.
#8 Samuel Eto’o
After Roger Milla became the first African footballer to garner mainstream popularity, his compatriot reached even greater heights, with Samuel Eto’o’s exploits in front of goal setting him apart as one of the best strikers of his generation.
He began his European sojourn with Real Madrid, but having failed to break into the first team, he left and got his breakthrough with RCD Mallorca where he spent four years and became the club’s record goalscorer.
This prompted a transfer to Barcelona in 2004 and he promptly established himself as the club’s first-choice striker and scored goals for fun, helping to kickstart what has become the most successful era in the club’s illustrious history.
There was also a successful stint at Inter Milan, while his international record is also enviable, winning consecutive Africa Cup of Nations as well as the 2000 Olympics with Cameroon.
On an individual level, Samuel Eto’o was also highly accomplished and he was named the CAF Africa Player of the Year on four occasions (including three consecutively), while he also finished in third place for the FIFA Best Player in 2005 and won the 2015 Golden Foot.
#7 Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini is regularly touted as the greatest defender in history and rightly, so, as in his 25-year career, he discharged his duties with class and distinction.
He represented AC Milan throughout his playing spell and witnessed the highs and lows of the Rossoneri, playing a major role in all the successes enjoyed by the club in his time there.
He broke into the squad aged just 17 and together with Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacutta, and Mauro Tassotti formed what is considered the greatest defensive backline and they helped AC Milan to near-invincibility both domestically and on the continent.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Paolo captained his boyhood club to two Champions League titles and although success eluded him on the international scene, he is still widely regarded as the best defender in the history of Italian football which is indicative of how great he was considering the plethora of great defenders that have represented the Azurri.
Maldini finished third in the Ballon d’Or on two occasions (1994 and 2003), while he finished as runner-up in the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995.
#6 Raul Gonzalez
The superhuman displays of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi means that Raul Gonzalez would not get the immortality he deserves, but that takes nothing away from his goalscoring feats.
He emerged from the Real Madrid academy as a prodigiously talented teenager, making his breakthrough with the senior squad in 1994 and spent the next 16 years rewriting the record books with Los Blancos.
Upon his departure from the Spanish giants in 2010, he left as the club’s record goalscorer with 323 goals, while he was also the highest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League, but both records have since been obliterated by Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the late 1990s and start of the new millennium, Raul was the best striker in the world and it was a major travesty that he did not get to lift the Ballon d’Or. He came closest to doing so in 2001 but controversially lost the award to Michael Owen
During his playing days, Romario distinguished himself as a goalscorer of the highest level and represented some of the best clubs in the world including Barcelona, PSV, and Valencia, winning a host of trophies along the way.
With 734 official career goals, Romario is one of the highest-scoring footballers in history and should have won the Ballon d’Or.
His best shot at the award came in 1994 when he played a starring role to help Brazil win the World Cup in the USA, however, this was a year before non-Europeans were eligible, thus Romario ended his career without having won the Ballon d’Or.
Zico is arguably the greatest player not to have won the World Cup and he was the star of the Brazilian team which wowed everyone and captured imaginations around the world at the 1982 World Cup.
The ‘White Pele’ was an attacking midfielder of extraordinary proportions, possessing the innate skillset to find spaces for his teammates, while his dribbling and freekick abilities were also top-notch.
He spent most of his playing career with his native Flamengo where he achieved cult status but also had a stint in Europe with Udinese in Serie A.
Like most of the other South Americans on this list, Zico played in an era when only Europeans were considered for the Ballon d’Or, hence he never won the accolade in what was a legendary career.
#3 Ferenk Puskas
The Hungarian team of the 1940s and 1950s is regularly regarded as one of the best in history and they were largely unstoppable at the height of their powers.
The ‘Magical Magyars’ were led by the dynamic frontline of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis and it was the former who was catapulted to global fame and immortality.
After starring with Budapest Honved in his country – where he averaged over a goal per game in over a decade – he was transferred to Real Madrid in the middle of their early European dominance and Puskas played his part in helping the club to win three European Cups.
In total, he scored over 700 career goals and given that he was a European, it is rather baffling that he never got to win the Ballon d’Or, with his runner-up finish in 1960 the closest he came to winning the accolade.
Tragically, he passed on in 2006 and the grand old age of 78. In recognition of his goal scoring prowess, FIFA announced the creation of the Puskas award to reward the player adjudged to have scored the most beautiful goal in the preceding year.
#2 Diego Maradona
If anybody is asked to make a list of the greatest players in history, it is very highly likely that Diego Amando Maradona would feature in all of them.
The Argentine captured global attention when he captained Argentina to victory at their maiden World Youth Championship in 1979 and seven years later, he took it one step further by guiding them to triumph on the grandest stage of them all.
In the history of the World Cup, it is arguable that a single man has not been as instrumental to his side’s success as Maradona was in 1986 and his performance in the quarterfinal against England was perhaps the most defining moment of his illustrious career.
His club career was equally as decorated and to date, he receives god-like adulation in Naples, having helped put Napoli on the global map and guiding them to win their only two Serie A titles.
However, despite his brilliant career, Maradona was a decade too early to win the Ballon d’Or but had South Americans been eligible in his time, it is undeniable that Maradona would have won the award.
Having watched his father suffer heartbreak when Brazil lost the final of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay at the Maracana, a 10-year-old Pele told his distraught father that he would bring back the World Cup to his country and while his father might have dismissed the talk as wishful thinking, events later proved it to be more than just words.
Eight years after his claim, Pele came good on his promise and played a starring role to help Brazil to the first of what has become five world titles.
Pele was unarguably the first global superstar in the game of football and despite playing most of his club career with his native Santos, he garnered attention from every corner of the globe.
Just like Maradona and Zico, Pele was however not eligible for the Ballon d’Or and despite being considered the best player in history, he never got to lift the premier individual prize in football.